By Ana Cristina Villa Betancourt
A few weeks ago Rome lived one of those unique experiences that can only happen in the city of Peter, at the heart of Christianity: one Thursday evening, around 15 thousand priests gathered with the Holy Father for a vigil of Eucharistic Adoration, and the following morning saw the largest concelebration in history on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The impressive scene of St Peter’s Square swarming with priests in their white albs remained engraved as the image of what was a very special moment of grace for the entire Church. It was the closure of the Year for Priests, called for by Benedict XVI in order to commemorate 150 years since the death of St Jean Marie Vianney, and dedicated to renewing the identity and vocation of priests. It seems impossible for us to allow this unique and special occasion to go by without us also taking some time to reflect a little on the figure of the priest and his relationship with women.
In 1995 - a year of international importance for women for it was the meeting in Beijing of the United Nations IV World Conference on Women - the venerable John Paul II dedicated more than a few reflections to the topic of the dignity and vocation of women. As part of these reflections and in connection with our topic, we can mention the Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday, dedicated in that year to the relationship between the priest and the woman. On that occasion, the Pontiff taught that, “the dimensions of mother and sister are the two fundamental dimensions of the relationship between women and priests” (1), and that these dimensions allow for a “serene and mature” relationship. Such a relationship means mutual enrichment, mutual collaboration. With his point of view that is not naïve, for he is not unaware of the difficulties that could arise, the Holy Father highlights the richness and the positive fruits that can shoot forth from a mutual relationship that is lived in total fidelity to the gift of priestly celibacy. The letter touches many other topics such as the figure of Mary and her spiritual maternity for all men, especially for priests; the women in the Gospels, especially at the decisive moments of the Passion and Resurrection; however it is not now possible to analyse all of them.
Inspired by these reflections of John Paul II we could ask ourselves what these relationships between priests and women consist of and how they are to take place. It is not difficult to associate these reflections of John Paul II to others from Mulieris Dignitatem, written a few years previously, in which he said, “In the "unity of the two", man and woman are called from the beginning not only to exist "side by side" or "together", but they are also called to exist mutually "one for the other" (2);. man and woman are called to communion, to encounter. In this context, the existence of “other” constitutes that suitable help that the Creator considers necessary (cf Gen 2:18), and that is mutual help. In Genesis, marriage is shown as being the first and fundamental dimension of that call, but the Pope says to us that it is not the only way. This principal of mutually being “for” the other means that God himself has wanted, in the history of humanity, for the male and female elements to be brought together. In the Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the collaboration of men and women in the Church and in the world, we are told that “the Church, enlightened by faith in Jesus Christ, speaks [...] of active collaboration between the sexes precisely in the recognition of the difference between man and woman (3).
As a first response to our question, therefore, we find the ideas of collaboration, complementarity, mutual enrichment, the importance of the difference and dialogue between men and women. These inspirations will find ways of being expressed that are adequate to people and circumstances.
But in order to continue deepening in the relationship between priests and women, perhaps it might also be useful to be reminded of the initiative of the Congregation for the Clergy, in the year 2007, when it made an international invitation to Eucharistic Adoration for the holiness of priests, especially, but not uniquely, to consecrated women — following the typology of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Eternal High Priest, and Helper in his work of Redemption — who might wish to spiritually adopt priests in order to help them with their self-offering, prayer, and penance (4). This spiritual maternity is experienced by priests especially in the person of their own mothers who, generally have not only given them life, but have also accompanied them and sustained them over the maturing of their priestly vocation. A most beautiful example of this spiritual maternity, and one which shines throughout the centuries is that of Saint Monica whom not only bore him in her flesh so that he might be born to temporal life but offering tireless prayers and sacrifices for him, won him for God.
A fraternal relationship therefore, in which we are sisters to our priests, accompanying them and sustaining them, offering our opinions, and when necessary, our criticisms, our “different” and “complementary” view of reality, with sisterly love that is pure and free of unhealthy, possessive attitudes, always maintaining a respectful, cordial distance; this love must be centred above all on the respect for the noble and sacred vocation that they have received and that seeks to help this vocation as much as we are able to do so. As a complement to this, this relationship of spiritual maternity must truly seek to “give life”, using the tools of prayer and mortification. Spiritual maternity that is particularly directed towards priests is a vocation of service, often hidden and silent, but filled with meaning. Together with it, we can sustain, using the invisible but powerful strength of prayer, the truly amazing vocation of those men who, despite their human weakness, are called no less than to make God present, and with Him, his love, his forgiveness, his mercy, in the midst of the world. The events of the last few months that have seen the dignity of the priesthood not only damaged but trampled upon, the call of the Holy Father to purification and penance, make it ever more urgent and necessary to live this vocation.
In the homily at the Holy Mass at the end of the Year for Priests, Pope Benedict encouraged priests “to respond to God’s courage and humility with our own courage and humility” (5); God continues entrusting his greatest treasures to poor “earthenware vessels”. We women too can respond with our courage and humility in assuming our role as sisters and as mothers, giving of ourselves fully in the service of the Lord and of His Church with all the love of which our feminine heart is capable.
1. JOHN PAUL II, Letter to Priests 1995.
2. ID., Mulieris Dignitatem, 7.
3. CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the collaboration of men and women in the Church and in the world, 4.
4 . CONGREGATION FOR THE CLERGY, Eucaristic Adoration for the Sanctification of Priests and Spiritual Maternity, 2007. To be found at: http://www.clerus.org/clerus/dati/2008-01/25-13/Adoration.html, last access 25/06/2010.
5. BENEDICT XVI, Homily at the Conclusion of the Year for Priests, 11 June 2010.